With visitors barred from visiting during the coronavirus pandemic, Ellen Metzger would rub her dying patients’ feet, comb their hair and sing their favorite hymns.
A Gilchrist Hospice Care nurse for six years and a member of the profession for more than four decades, Metzger thought she’d become “hardened” to the losses, but the absence of families bedside challenged her resolve.
Something else eroded her commitment even more: employer, state and federal mandates for COVID-19 vaccination. Metzger refused.
”I’ve been made to feel like I’m a bad nurse and I’m putting patients at risk, and that I don’t care, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said. “I appreciate the concern, and wanting to keep patients safe, and ‘looking at science,’ but the science I’m looking at doesn’t tell me the same thing.”
Metzger left her job and is considering applying for unemployment insurance. Others are likely to follow suit as they start to bump against COVID-19 vaccination mandates in health facilities, businesses, universities and elsewhere.
The mandates will test how far workers will go when their livelihood, or any income, is on the line. Many states such as New York have told workers, particularly in health and educational fields, they will not qualify for unemployment benefits because they defied policies evenly applied by their employers. A small number of Republican-led states, including Iowa, have passed legislation to allow vaccine refusers to get state-level benefits.
It may be less clear-cut in Maryland. State officials say they will consider “mitigating factors,” though they did not spell out what those are.
A statement from the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which oversees the state’s unemployment benefits system, said employers “have the right to set reasonable conditions of employment on their employees as long as those policies are consistently applied and include valid medical and religious exemptions.”
But the statement also said, “Adjudicators must follow-up and determine whether a claimant’s misconduct, quit, or job refusal has mitigating factors.” That applies whether the unemployment is due to vaccine requirements or not.
The number of such claimants so far in Maryland is small — 10. State officials did not reveal whether any have qualified for benefits or how many more people they expect to apply.
Harriet E. Cooperman, an employment and labor attorney and partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein and Lehr, said there is certainly a risk of being denied after refusing a vaccine mandate or any workplace requirement, such as codes of conduct or drug tests.
While she said it’s still too early to tell how the unemployment office will handle those who are fired or considered to have resigned for defying their employer’s vaccine mandates, she believes the government mandates will only increase the risk of denial of benefits.
She said many workers initially opposed to vaccination are relenting to keep their jobs. Some have given in after being denied exemptions. Employers can use their discretion in granting those.